Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Back in July, I went blueberry picking right near my friends Shannon and BJ’s new property where they are renovating a dilapidated house on some nice land. It’s the kind of house that people in their right mind would tear down and build something new. It was valued accordingly in the purchase. A new house would take less time and less money than BJ’s plan. But BJ often does the unthinkable, building high quality timber-frame structures that are made to last with beauty, strength and artfulness. And he’s done crazy renovation projects before. BJ couldn’t resist this one after he found a log cabin with a stone kitchen underneath layers of drywall and plaster.
So it’s July, and I’m dropping off blueberries to Shannon. I knew she wouldn’t get over to pick blueberries, even though she lives four minutes from the blueberry farm. She ate blueberries and shared with me this week’s homestead-building fiasco. We’re standing in front of the trailer that Shannon and BJ and their two kids have been living in for two years, during the renovation, and Shannon tells me this story. Renovation is always an adventure and fodder for stories.
A Little Toilet Humor
Shannon has a friend over with her two kids and they are playing with Shannon’s two kids. The kids are playing in front of the trailer while Shannon and her friend are in the house, talking about the next step in renovation. They check on the kids at the trailer, to find them happily playing, but Shannon sees water pouring out of the trailer. The kids don’t notice that.
When you live in a trailer, there are quirky little details. In this case, the toilet flush handle gets stuck open if you aren’t careful. The water kept flowing and flowing, out onto the skinny carpet hallway, into the kitchen and out the door. Toilet water, pouring out of the trailer, and Shannon is running to see if the kids are OK. They are fine. They are playing. What? Oh, no, we didn’t see that happening.
And all this, an hour before Shannon needed to head to work at the restaurant for the evening. Shannon called BJ to warn him what he would face when he got home from work. Mad might not quite describe BJ’s emotion. BJ got home, Shannon rushed to work, and BJ shop vac’d the trailer. Then, if I know BJ, he got a couple hours of house building in before calling it a night.
So this is already a story worth retelling, and never reliving. And now it’s six months later and I am sitting in their beautiful completed kitchen with Shannon and BJ and a few other friends, just after their huge open house. And I’m rehearing this story. A story that has the other friends wide-eyed, as they sit on the reupholstered antique love seat in the stone kitchen, warm from the woodstove. I am crying from laughter, as I relive the story from Shannon’s first telling, now hearing BJ’s input too, and watching my friends’ wide-eyed stares. And they haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.
The next day, BJ gets up at 5am to go to work and he stops into the house for a minute. What he sees amazes him. He had just spent the evening cleaning up trailer water and … what was this? Sheep poop? There is a trail of sheep poop and urine in the kitchen and the log rooms. The mudroom door is wide open. It had been left open the night before at some point (can we blame this one on kids too? Let’s hope)…and the sheep had been in the upper grazing area that leads up to the house. They came right into the house and had a grand ol’ party. An all-night sheep party. No sheep in the house now but there was definitely evidence that the sheep had toured the entire house. Even upstairs in the bedrooms. BJ warns Shannon of what she needs to attend to, because BJ is running off to work. Turnabout is fair play, right?
Now I’ve fallen over laughing and crying, watching Sarah and Bobby take this story in for the first time. I’m remembering the look in Shannon’s eyes back in July, when she was eating blueberries and telling me what she had just been up to. Cleaning up sheep poop on the floorboards they had just installed. Yes, of course, the flooring had just been installed. The only saving grace was that this happened before the floor was sanded and stained. So it cleaned up real nice. In fact, the whole place cleaned up real nice. I can barely believe it, having seen it before and after. I look at BJ and Shannon, relaxing in their kitchen with friends and already starting to lose perspective on what they endured to build this place. It is time to live in it now, this beautiful kitchen. I look at the back door that leads out to the upper pasture. The doorway is framed with some artfully cut original boarding from upstairs that BJ salvaged and made into a lovely door frame accent. Shannon added her own touch, some blackboard paint over the odd shaped little space above the door and under the ceiling. It is just wide enough to write her favorite quotes over the door. The first chalked quote over the door is by Rumi: Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Green Home Renovation
This is how the whole house looks, with finishing touches from both BJ and Shannon, each one with a story of how the piece was found, refinished, remade, or made from scatch. They stripped the house down to the frame, rechinking the logs and repointing the stonework in the kitchen. Everywhere you turn there is a story. The fireplaces BJ uncovered. An original nail, thick and square, sticking out of a stone in the kitchen wall. The original rough-sawn shelves set into the stonework that they just sanded and stained. The barn beams from a friend’s farm that BJ carried with him as they moved several times, to finally use in this house renovation.
Now BJ and Shannon are just beginning to visit with friends in this beautiful kitchen of reclaimed items and a labor of love, and they are not running. Shannon quit the restaurant job and now she does not have to run. Here they are now, entertaining in the room where it always happens, the kitchen. This kitchen has everything that speaks cozy friendship. I love a kitchen with a couch. There is a woodstove, a long library table that Shannon bought for $100 at a restore and BJ sanded and stained. A custom kitchen island bartered in a work trade for a timber frame tractor shed. An old fashioned hutch she hasn’t filled with dishes yet. Above the sink are walnut open shelves milled and purchased locally. Bottles of housewarming gift wine are starting to fill the little compartments in the wine and mug cabinet, a salvaged antique post office box. Now, post party, there are dishes in the sink and the floor needs a cleaning from lots of feet that toured the place today. The place has been officially broken in, and not just by the sheep now. By friends and family who care about Shannon and BJ and their beautiful hard-earned project. I keep eyeing the stainless refrigerator, double ovens, and commercial Viking six- burner gas range, all salvaged appliances. This kitchen is going to make a lot of great bread and soup to go with these stories for a long time.
Every timber-frame project of BJ’s is hand-cut and customized to the specific client's wishes with an eye to the smallest detail. These handcrafted structures are remarkably well suited to green ideals: through the use of reclaimed materials, energy efficient designs, and the use of modern highly efficient materials, such as SIPS panels. BJ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of kitchen into log room and oveseat and shelves by Marci Varley
Photo of Shannon and Sarah by Ilene White Freedman. Shannon is on the loveseat and Sarah and Bobby are in chairs.
Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and http://blog.houseinthewoods.com, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to http://www.houseinthewoods.com.